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How Did a Convicted Murderer Get Appointed to Montco Board? Nobody’s Talking.

A convicted killer becomes an advisor to a prison system. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

But it’s no laughing matter in Montgomery County.

In 1985, Vernon Steed shot and killed Serena Gibson, an innocent bystander who was with her family nearby when he fired at a fellow criminal in a drug dispute.

In 2022, Montgomery County Commissioners made Steed a member of the Prison Board of Inspectors, a citizen oversight committee.

Now Steed, 55, is back behind bars, accused of stealing some $95,000 in public-assistance funds by filing phony paperwork using the names of his friends and relatives.

Concerned citizens are asking why elected county officials would appoint a criminal like Steed to a county board. But nobody is willing to say just how he came to the position in the first place, even after his arrest last month.

Joseph Gale, the lone Republican on the county Board of Commissioners, strongly opposed Steed’s appointment. When asked how Steed ended up on the board in the first place—whether he sought out the position or was actively recruited by the county’s Democratic commissioners—Gale said he didn’t know.

“You would have to ask the commissioners who voted for him if they encouraged him to apply,” he told DVJournal. “I certainly didn’t ask him to seek the position; I voted against his appointment.”

County commissioner and board chair Kenneth E. Lawrence, Jr. did not respond to questions about the circumstances surrounding Steed’s appointment. Nor did former commissioner Valerie Arkoosh, who was on the county board at the time of Steed’s appointment and who is now the acting secretary of the state human services department.

At the time, Arkoosh made her support of Steed’s appointment clear.

“I just want to comment that I do intend to support Mr. Steed’s appointment. That he will bring an individual to the Prison Board of Inspectors with lived experience. And I think that will be an extremely important perspective to have as part of our county Prison Board of Inspectors.”


“DHS has no comment,” spokeswoman Ali Fogarty told DVJournal.

Asked about Steed’s appointment, county spokeswoman Kelly Cofrancisco said the system worked as designed. “The commissioners review all applicants for volunteer board positions and make appointments through official action during their board meetings,” she said.

She previously told DVJournal last month the county “continues to support applicants from all backgrounds to apply to serve on Montgomery County boards and commissions in a volunteer capacity.”

“The county remains committed to appointing residents with lived experience and diverse perspectives to serve in these positions,” she added.

The county invites interested applicants to apply for the prison inspector board on its website.

The board is “unique in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the county says, calling it “a citizens’ oversight board for the humane treatment of Montgomery County incarcerated individuals” and one that “maintains oversight of Prison operations.”

Board inspections “provide a sounding board for incarcerated individuals,” the county’s website says, while board members “are there to notice any particular patterns or needs such as upgrading the telephone system or implementing tablets with access to the internet.”

Board members also perform “administrative duties, oversight of personnel, expenditures, and other budgetary items.”

Steed’s criminal history at the time of his appointment last year had been touted as a bona fide supporting his candidacy. He was expected to bring “lived experience” to the board, Arkoosh said during deliberations. She called it “an extremely important perspective to have as part of our county Prison Board of Inspectors.”

Gale retorted, “The lived experience that this individual brings is 32 years in state prison for murder.” Following Steed’s recent arrest, he called the scandal “unacceptable and embarrassing.”

“It was an absolute disgrace for the Democrat County Commissioners to appoint a convicted murderer to the Prison Board of Inspectors in the first place,” he said.

“Now, less than a year later, their decision to override my opposition has proven to be a grave error in judgment, which jeopardized the safety and welfare of many,” Gale added.

Steed is accused of stealing nearly $100,000 in COVID-19 emergency funds by using other people’s names to apply for the money.

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Monto Commissioner Races Heat Up

The old saying “politics ain’t beanbag” is playing out in the Montgomery County commissioners race, which is more wide open than it has been in recent memory.

Monday is the last day to register to vote in the May 16 primary. And in the last two weeks of April, the contest for two Republican Montgomery County commissioner spots on the fall ballot has ramped up into high gear.

Radio stations are running ads for incumbent Joe Gale and another narrated by Liz Ferry, touting herself and her running mate, Tom DiBello.

Ferry also has many digital ads on Facebook and other platforms and plans to air TV ads, too. Both Ferry and DiBello were endorsed by the county GOP. Gale did not seek its endorsement.

And there are the mailings, too.

Gale sent at least two cards that urge voters to “bullet vote” or vote for only him while decrying the other Republicans as “liberals” who voted to raise taxes in their previous positions. He slammed Ferry for voting for a resolution as an Upper Dublin commissioner that “deplored” law enforcement for the death of George Floyd and mentioned “the innate racial prejudice in each and every person.”

One Republican voter told DVJournal that after seeing that mailing, he is unlikely to vote for either Gale or Ferry.

On the other hand, a mailer on behalf of DiBello and sent by a political action committee (PAC) offered an upbeat message. It said he would support small business and law enforcement, wants to keep elections fair, and is for “parents’ voices in their kids’ education.”

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale

Asked about negative ads, Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant, and CEO of Quantum Communications, said, “They work. Otherwise, people wouldn’t use them. But they generally work only in a positive environment. That means it’s best to establish your own positive identity by telling voters about your qualifications and what you’ll do in office before going after your opponent.

“It’s also important that the negatives be limited to compare and contrast ads focused on things in the public arena. Cheap shots and slander usually backfire.”

Asked about his attacks on his fellow Republicans, Gale blamed “party bosses” who want an “insider” on the board to funnel contracts to their favored companies.

He said that he is an “unwavering fiscal watchdog.”

“I have opposed every tax increase sent to my desk, identified hundreds of millions of dollars in wasteful spending, and exposed pay-to-play politics. In addition, I battled the totalitarian COVID-19 lockdowns and shutdowns that brought harm to so many schoolchildren and small-business owners.

“Most notably, I have been Pennsylvania’s leading voice in the effort to restore election integrity. I voted to implement paper ballots that provide an auditable record of every vote cast, opposed the purchase and installation of mail-in ballot drop-boxes, and opposed all contracts related to mail-in voting and the mail-in Ballot Counting Center.” He also refused to certify elections since Act 77, allowing no-excuse mail-in votes, passed the legislature.

“The Republican voters of Montgomery County have the right to know that the GOP establishment is deceiving them by endorsing two candidates who have a proven record of governing like left-wing Democrats,” said Gale.

The commissioners will be paid $98,200 next year. However, Gale voted against the pay raise that the two Democrats on the board–Val Arkoosh and Kenneth Lawrence Jr.–passed as they also raised taxes by 8 percent. Gale said he would not take the pay increase.

But Ferry paints Gale as ineffective.

She said that even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county, she and DeBello have a good shot at taking back the county Board of Commissioners, which has been in Democratic control since 2011.

With five relatively unknown people running on the Democratic side, Ferry and DeBello say there is an opening for Republicans to win this year by wooing independent voters.

“People are tired of Joe Gale working for third place. Tom and I believe we can win if we get out the vote,” said Ferry, who mentioned that Gale campaigned for governor last year while serving as commissioner.”

The three-member board has one seat reserved for the minority party.

“I get things done, unlike Joe Gale, who says he votes against tax increases and then approves almost every expense without asking any questions,” said Ferry.

Ferry said the last two years, she got her Upper Dublin board to pass budgets with no tax increases, despite being the only Republican among the seven members. And before that, she was able to pare costs to reduce tax hikes, she said.

She said she was able to stop high-density development in several residential areas and preserve open space, work to get small businesses open during COVID-19, worked with the Turnpike Commission to build a new zip ramp at Fort Washington in order to revitalize the Fort Washington office park and bring in new companies.

Of the five Democrats running—Commissioner Jamila Winder, Tanya Bamford, Neil Makhija, Kimberly Koch, and Noah Marlier–only Makhija appears to be sending campaign postcards so far.

Cheltenham resident Carol Bassetti, a registered Democrat, said she has received a few from him that “go straight to the shredder.” She doesn’t know about any of the five Democratic candidates running but said she would do her own research.

“I’m not going to look at his advertisements that say he’s the guy,” said Bassetti. “He’s not going to fix cancer or stop the war. I will do my due diligence before the election.”


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Jamila H. Winder Appointed to Montgomery County Board of Commissioners

Jamila H. Winder will be sworn in Wednesday to a seat on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

The East Norristown resident will replace Dr. Val Arkoosh, who was appointed by Gov. Josh Shapiro to head the Department of Health and Human Services.  Winder, a Democrat, previously served on the Norristown Area School Board and is chair of the East Norriton Board of Supervisors.

The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas voted to appoint Winder, after calling for candidates to send in their resumes.

“I am extremely proud to welcome Jamila as our next commissioner, and I look forward to serving alongside her this coming year,” said Kenneth E. Lawrence, Jr., vice chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. “I know that Jamila’s ties to our community run deep, and I am confident she will work every day in service to our residents to continue to make Montgomery County one of the best places to live and raise a family.”

Republican Commissioner Joe Gale said, “I called and congratulated Jamila Winder on her appointment to the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. I look forward to helping Ms. Winder get acquainted with her new position by introducing her to the many departments and personnel that the Board of Commissioners oversees.

“I hope that in making their selection to fill the commissioner vacancy, the Common Pleas Judges chose someone who will make Montgomery County government more open and transparent to both me, as the sole Republican on the board, and taxpayers of all political affiliations.

“In the past, the Democrat majority commissioners have made every effort to marginalize my participation by keeping me in the dark about county operations. I am optimistic that will change under this new administration,” said Gale.

Winder did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. However, she is expected to drop a bid to become county register of wills and run to be elected as a commissioner this year, according to published reports. Lawrence has indicated he will not run again. The county Democratic Committee endorsed state Rep. Tim Briggs (D-King of Prussia) to run as commissioner in his place. Neither Briggs nor Montgomery County Democratic Committee Chairman Jason Salus responded to requests for comment.

Liz Preate Havey, chair of the Montgomery County Republican Committee, said the GOP will endorse its candidates for county offices at a meeting at the end of February.

Winder has worked for various organizations, including Drexel University, Laureate Education, and FullBloom, an online education service for health professionals, where she leads U.S. operations.

Winder said she believes strong communities and quality education are the keys to ensuring future success, according to a county press release. Her belief in the power of high-quality education was instilled into her at an early age by her mother and grandmother, who are both significant advocates of a strong education.

Winder, who will be the first Black woman on the Montgomery County Board, is motivated by “equity, diversity, and commitment to public service,” according to the press release.

She served on the Norristown Area School Board from 2017 to 2020 before being elected to the Board of Supervisors.

Winder is a Norristown Area High School graduate. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree from Eastern University.

Winder lives with her husband and son in East Norriton.


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